Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Simple Wrong Answer


Disclaimer: I am not aligned with any political party, nor do I advocate for a particular political position. The views expressed here are specifically my own. They are not endorsed by my employer or reflect any position on their part.

Reading through the transcript of Kevin Rudd's interview on the 7:30 Report, I got angry. Yet another politician who wants to fiddle with education in this country for political reasons that have nothing to do with improving education per se. We've already been lumbered with Brendan Nelson's ill-conceived notions of how student reports should look and the absolutely reprehensible tying of Federal funds to its implementation. Now Kevin Rudd's making noises that show he's cut from the same cloth.

Rudd's promising a "revolution". When Kerry O'Brien pressed him for details, Rudd threw out the following guff:
"This whole proposal I put out there today is about how we deal with this gaping hole in Australia's economic performance, and it's the decline in productivity growth ... the most effective way of building productivity growth is to invest in human capital, and that's where the data for Australia has been going backwards."
Gaping hole? Well, I'll let the economists chew over that one. But as for the going backwards part, that I'll buy into.

What does Rudd offer as evidence for this assertion?
"...let's look at what's happening in early childhood education. There are 30 countries or so assessed recently by the OECD - this is how we get in at the ground level for educating our young Australians. What we do with four year olds, for example. Guess where we come out of the list of 31 countries which have been assessed and measured by the OECD? Stone bottom last. That is a rolled gold failed performance. We have to lift the game there."
No mention of exactly what was being assessed and measured - a little searching on the web brought forth some interesting data about the OECD/PISA study Rudd is referring to. The study assesses and measures a wide variety of things, per capita expenditure, expenditure as a proportion of GDP, class sizes, literact levels in Reading, Mathematics and the Sciences, public versus private funding levels, and lots more. So what was being measured in the example that Rudd gave? From what I could find on the web, Australia ranked last out of 20 countries (not 31) in spending on early childhood services.

But I also found a few other things from the same study. Australia's results in overall Reading Literacy - 4th. In Mathematics - 5th. In Scientific Literacy - 7th. Not too shabby for a county that is apparently going backwards. And the really interesting part is the three countries that spent the most on early childhood services (Denmark, Sweden and Norway)[1] fall well down the list. [2] Denmark, spending 2% of GDP on early childhood, education and care, more than any other country, ranked no higher than 12th in the above categories. This in itself raises some interesting questions, but somehow I doubt Kevin Rudd is going to bring them up himself. Rudd's game here is only to highlight results that 'support', however tenuously, his assertion that the Howard government is doing a bad job. Naturally the positive results will get a guernsey somewhere along the line to make the argument about what a great job the government is doing. No wonder Mark Twain quipped "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics".

Rudd went on:
"...we have, against all the measures from early childhood through to universities, a problem in terms of the quantum, of the investment in these areas..."
So this revolution will be about spending more on education? Yes and no.
"...I'm not proposing a blank cheque to the sector, I'm proposing conditions be attached because the parallel part of the education revolution I'm talking about is lifting the standards, lifting the actual quality of the outcomes, the outputs of our education system. More money, but in exchange a better performance, and that's the way we intend to go."
Here we have it - another Brendan Nelson moment. Notice the weasel-words - we've gone from our rolled gold failed performance in an unstated category to an investment problem to lifting the quality of the outputs of the education system. With performance levels attached to the money.

And what's driving this?
"My job, as the alternative Prime Minister of the country, is to put forward a practical program for schools, for vocational education, for TAFEs and for universities which achieves the nation's objectives, which is about raising productivity and underpinning our long term prosperity."
O'Brien actually asked a good question in response to this:
"Labor's Achilles heel at this election will again be its credibility as an economic manager. On the other hand, the polls always tell us that Labor rates well on education. Is that why you've identified education so strongly as an economic issue, to bolster a perceived weakness with a perceived strength?"
Exactly! Rudd's reply was quite revealing:
"No, not at all..."
but 10 seconds later in the same answer,
"...What I'm talking about is this on micro policy, most particularly, how do we boost productivity, how do we do it through human capital investment, how do we raise the quality and skills of our work force for the future economy, that is the core of the productivity debate..."

"No, not at all" ended up sounding to me very much like a "yes, but I don't want to put it that way".

There's no denying that the reason we have an education sector is in part to prepare people for the workplace. But the raison d'ĂȘtre of education is not to drive economic prosperity. And Rudd is implying that there is a strong correlation between productivity and educational outcomes - which is, in the words of Edmund Blackadder, bollocks. I don't pretend to be an economist, but it's no effort to do a bit of reading online to see what real economists have to say about productivity in Australia, and I don't find any of them talking about lifting educational outcomes as the way to lift productivity.

The OECD studies Rudd appears so fond of also contradict his views. Countries like Japan and Canada have consistently appeared at the top of the tables in these and similar studies over the last couple of decades, particularly in those tables concerned with educational measures (as opposed to levels of expenditure, class sizes, etc.), but their productivity has nevertheless fluctuated just like Australia's. Investment in education and outcomes from education have not been significant determinants in a country's productivity. Attempts to narrow the productivity issue to a single focus like educational performance is disingenuous.

Kerry O'Brien hit the nail on the head - Labor intends to bolster a perceived weakness with a perceived strength. Education in this country can do without this nonsense. Let's hope enough economists and educational leaders, regardless of their political leanings, speak up and make it clear to both sides of politics that this sort of drivel is unacceptable.

As my friend Tony Butz once told me, to every complex question there is a simple wrong answer.


[1] Based on the table appearing here (Figure 5.3, halfway down the page).
[2] From the tables at the bottom of this article.

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